Tag archive for Yosemite

Ken Burns on Yosemite

A couple of years ago Ken Burns gave a talk in San Gabriel about one of his favorite subjects, Yosemite, and said I thought many wise things, most especially:

“This couldn’t have happened any place else. It is the Declaration of Independence applied to the landscape; the full expression of the democratic experience,” Burns said.

“Up until the Yosemite Grant, all lands were owned by nobleman, kings and the very, very wealthy. Now, suddenly, land was owned in common by everyone in the country,” he explained.

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The Martian Way: Section I of PCT/Sonora Pass

Nicholas Kristof for the NYTimes, who is walking the PCT with his daughter, heading south, wrote recently in a Sunday column about the joy and beauty of the trail, and extolled in particular one section of the trail I happen to have just completed, towards the end of Section I. From This Land is Your Land:

My daughter and I are hiking the full Pacific Crest Trail, 2,650 miles from Mexico to Canada, in the narrow window in which she’s strong enough and I’m not yet decrepit. We’ve hiked half and hope to finish in another five or six years.

My favorite area this time was the area south of Sonora Pass, a stunning landscape of jagged peaks, snow patches and alpine lakes. We found it more intoxicating than any microbrew.

That’s all true, but Kristof mostly describes the classic Yosemite Wilderness, made of granite and pine and water, and not Sonora Pass, made metamorphic rock, arid, red, jagged, inhospitable, and million miles away from the lush canyons and smooth surfaces of ice-sculpted granite.

Here’s one of the few lives I found thriving in this wilderness of rock.



It’s not that these flowers were so special, really, it’s that they were there at all. Read More →

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The natural art of the High Sierra: James McGrew

Yosemite Blog, as a sort of note to encourage us all to apply for the High Sierra Camp lottery, features the young artist/wilderness guide James McGrew, who has been going to these inexhaustible mountains since the age of four, and seems to have gained a pretty good understanding, as seen in his painting:


This depicts meadows below the High Sierra Camp at Sunrise, on a ridge not too far from Lake Tenaya, tend to dry out in the summer…which in this picture gives them an autumnal glow. Boy does this make me wish I could see the artist in action which he apparently makes possible on the trail sometimes. 


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“Sheepwrecked” in Yosemite, Santa Cruz I., and the UK

140 years ago sheep were devastating the slopes and meadows of the Sierras and John Muir launched an effort — which took decades — to remove them. He wrote:

It is impossible to conceive of a devastation more universal than is produced among the plants of the Sierra by sheep…The greass is eaten close and trodden until it resembles a corral… Where the soil is not preserved by a strong elastic sod, it is cut up and beaten to loose dust and every herbaceous plant is killed. Tees and bushes escape, but they appear to stand in a desert very different from the delicately planted forest floor which is gardneed with flowers arranged in open separated groups. Nine-tenths of the whole surface of the Sierra has been swept by the scourge. It demands legislative interference. [from his journals for September 19, 1873]

Recently the well-known environmental columnist for the Guardian, George Monbiot, has launched his own campaign against the destruction wrought by sheep on a landscape, bY opposing — in a contrarian fashion — the designation of England's famous Lake District as a World Heritage site. He writes:

The celebrated fells have been thoroughly sheepwrecked: the forests which once covered them have been reduced by the white plague to bare rock and bowling green. By eating the young trees that would otherwise have replaced their parents, the sheep wiped the hills clean. They keep them naked, mowing down every edible plant that raises its head, depriving animals of their habitats. You’ll see more wildlife in Birmingham. Their sharp hooves compact the soil, ensuring that rain flashes off, causing floods downstream. This is the state which the bid would help preserve in perpetuity, preventing the ecological restoration of England’s biggest national park.

This is part of Monbiot's rewilding campaign, as he states in a manifesto:

Through rewilding – the mass restoration of ecosystems – I see an opportunity to reverse the destruction of the natural world. Researching my book Feral, I came across rewilding programmes in several parts of Europe, including some (such as Trees for Life in Scotland and the Wales Wild Land Foundation) in the UK, which are beginning to show how swiftly nature responds when we stop trying to control it (18,19). Rewilding, in my view, should involve reintroducing missing animals and plants, taking down the fences, blocking the drainage ditches, culling a few particularly invasive exotic species but otherwise standing back. It’s about abandoning the Biblical doctrine of dominion which has governed our relationship with the natural world.

It's so difficult for us to imagine a landscape before the arrival of us and our domestic animals. Monbiot quotes a forester named Ritchie Tassell sarcascitally wondering: "How did nature cope before we came along?"  

Herdwich sheep lake district large


"Rewilding" is a concept introduced in this country by Dave Foreman, of Earth First! fame.  I think it's best-known example in the U.S. is the idea of a route built over or under a highways to allows animals, especially migrating animals, to pass safely

But removing the sheep from the Lake District sounds like a start.

Anyone who has been to Santa Cruz Island, in a national park off the coast of Southern California, can can readily imagine how different and pleasant that island would be with hills of vineyard, producing tens of thousands of gallons of wine, instead of the unimaginably huge sheep farm that took over. 

For many years, dating back to the Spanish era, Santa Cruz island produced wine for the entire state, until a rancher named Ed Stanton took control, idled the vineyard, and imported thousands of sheep. A sucessful sheep operation resulted, and produced revenue while devastating the island, but eventually was bought out by the parks service. The sheep were eradicated in recent years. 

Point being: the Lake District too could benefit from a rewilding — and sheep removal. 

[We have no pictures, apparenlty, of Ed Stanton having the wine casks emptied and 26,000 gallons of wine poured out on the ground, but we do have a history of his operation. ]

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Murder or wilderness? A choice for October

Have been distracted from the PCT by a reporting assignment — covering a murder trial. Alex Medina, age eighteen, is on trial for the killing of Seth Scarminach, age sixteen at the time of his death 2009. Here's a story I wrote for the local paper on this for Wednesday:

An eyewitness to a slaying at a party in Meiners Oaks in 2009 testified Tuesday morning that he saw accused killer Alex Medina stab Seth Scarminah repeatedly and then kneel over him and “cut his throat.”

Alexander Gabriel, who was 18 at the time of the slaying, testified that he was standing behind the back porch, urinating, at a late-night party in the 2400 block of Maricopa Highway when he heard the defendant approach Scarminach.

“I finished and I turned around and Alex approached Seth saying, ‘What do you claim?’” Gabriel testified. “Seth said ‘Meiners Oaks.’ Alex said ‘OSL 13’ and they were about to fight.”
Gabriel testified that Scarminach gave him his hat and went with Medina to a driveway to fight, followed by Gabriel and two other partygoers.

“I had seen a lot of fights and was expecting a regular fight,” Gabriel testified. “They started fighting and there were a couple of blows each and then within 10 seconds I saw Alex make a stabbing motion. I saw a shiny thing and I knew it was a knife. Seth dropped to the ground and Alex got on top of him and cut his throat.”

Yikes! Lots of fascinating issues on the table — gang violence, rapping on such from both the accused and the victim, life in prison without the possibility of parole, mental health, legal strategies, the dark underbelly of Ojai…but not much beauty! Here's where I would like to be…


Though now that I think about it, if there's a government shutdown — as is expected Monday — then the national parks will close. So maybe it's not such a choice after all!

[pic From the generous and irresistible Jeff Sullivan

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The Rim fire near Yosmite: Disaster, restoration, or — ?

Haven't posted on the Rim Fire, which has been burning for nearly two weeks on the western slope of the Sierras, not far from Yosemite National Park. Big destructive fires trouble me, and the conventional wisdom on wildfire is that climate change will make matters worse, and, frankly, that's part of the reason I didn't rush to post on this one — didn't want to go down that road blindly.

As the fire continued to burn, a prominent forest advocate, Chad Hanson, came forward with an essay in Earth Island Journal in which he argues that, contrary to those sort of fears, this kind of "high-intensity" fire is exactly what the Sierra and its wild creatures and plants need. To wit:

The fire, which is currently [301,000] acres in size and covers portions of the Stanislaus National Forest and the northwestern corner of Yosemite National Park, has been consistently described as “catastrophic”, “destructive”, and “devastating.” One story featured a quote from a local man who said he expected “nothing to be left”. However, if we can, for a moment, set aside the fear, the panic, and the decades of misunderstanding about wildland fires in our forests, it turns out that the facts differ dramatically from the popular misconceptions. The Rim fire is a good thing for the health of the forest ecosystem. It is not devastation, or loss. It is ecological restoration.

Hanson has a point. The forest ecology of California depends on fire, and always has, and those who understand it, as the Native Americans did, see it less as fearful than useful. Or even beautiful. Here's a description of a fire sweeping up from the foothills into forests by John Muir, who stopped on a journey into the Kaweah in the Southern Sierra to admire the work being done.

(Thanks to Harold Wood and the John Muir Exhibit for tracking down this quote from Our National Parks)

I met a great fire, and as fire is the master scourge and controller of the distribution of trees, I stopped to watch it and learn what I could of its works and ways with the giants [Giant Sequoia]. It came racing up the steep chaparral-covered slopes of the East Fork cañon with passionate enthusiasm in a broad cataract of flames, now bending down low to feed on the green bushes, devouring acres of them at a breath, now towering high in the air as if looking abroad to choose a way, then stooping to feed again, the lurid flapping surges and the smoke and terrible rushing and roaring hiding all that is gentle and orderly in the work. But as soon as the deep forest was reached the ungovernable flood became calm like a torrent entering a lake, creeping and spreading beneath the trees where the ground was level or sloped gently, slowly nibbling the cake of compressed needles and scales with flames an inch high, rising here and there to a foot or two on dry twigs and clumps of small bushes and brome grass

But in that passage Muir subtly makes a distinction between a ground fire, which doesn't threaten great old sequoias, and a crown fire in the tops of the trees, which travels fast, and can destroy any kind of tree, according to the experts. The not-good fires the experts feared have come to us today.

Maggie Stevens gives us just Nine Scary Facts about Rim Fire, in a fast Buzzfeed-style explainer for Mother Jones, and yes, it's scary. Tens of thousands of acres burning, and every indication that this is connected to the fact that this has been the driest year in recorded history in California. Tom Swetnam, a fire expert at the University of Arizona, has a talk on this subject from April of this year, in which he includes a graph of spring temperatures in the Western U.S., showing a huge spike in recent years. 

Spring temperatures are really important in forests. If you have a warmer spring, the snow melts, and the water runs off, the fuels dry out, and the forests dry out, and wildfires occur. You can see this in the records, ever since l985, and 2012 really smashed the record of warm springs set in l910. Incidentally, in l910 we had enormous wildfires in the Western states, with more than a million acres burned in the Rocky Mountains, and more than eighty people killed. 

Does Hanson accept this? Not really. He speaks of the importance of snag forest habitat for biodiversity, mentioning the black-backed woodpecker evolved to hunt for beetle larvae in burned forests, but scoffs at the end that we are seeing a fundamental change. 

These are species that have evolved to depend upon the many habitat features in snag forest — habitat that cannot be created by any other means. Further, high-intensity fire is not increasing currently, according to most studies (and contrary to widespread assumptions), and our forests are getting wetter, not drier (according to every study that has empirically investigated this question), so we cannot afford to be cavalier and assume that there will be more fire in the future, despite fire suppression efforts.  We will need to purposefully allow more fires to burn, especially in the more remote forests.

He ignores spring temperatures, and the fact that as the climate warms, the Sierra will receive more water as rain and less as snow, evidently assuming that all "wetness" is equal.  

So, there is no ecological reason to fear or lament fires like the Rim fire, especially in an era of ongoing fire deficit. 

Or: "All is for the best, in this best of all [ecologically] possible worlds, as Pangloss said. Sort of. 


Really? Wish I could be so doubtless. The experts polled by Wired paint a more nuanced picture.

Some parts of Yosemite may be radically altered, entering entire new ecological states. Yet others may be restored to historical conditions that prevailed for for thousands of years from the last Ice Age’s end until the 19th century, when short-sighted fire management disrupted natural fire cycles and transformed the landscape.

In certain areas, “you could absolutely consider it a rebooting, getting the system back to the way it used to be,” said fire ecologist Andrea Thode of Northern Arizona University. “But where there’s a high-severity fire in a system that wasn’t used to having high-severity fires, you’re creating a new system.”

But the possibility that this is not an unmitigated disaster does allow me to appreciate artist friend Barbara Medaille's painting of fire (posted recently on fb) called Crowning


So that's something. The Rim Fire's awesomeness cannot be doubted. 

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The richness of the light of these days: John Muir

Warm and bright, the valley was spanned by fibrous bows of white cloud, heated masses of air from currentless ovens of chambered and bushy rocks lifted by newborn winds and bourne whole or in fragments about the open gulf of the valley…the richness of the light of these days recalls our best mellow autumns and springs. 

John Muir, January 24-26, 1869    

(via my new Twitter stream, Muirtweets)

(image from an astounding HD video posted today on YosemiteBlog)                                                                                        

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Winter sunset: Yosemite high country 2012

From YosemiteRanger:


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Yosemite deaths in 2011: Couch potato phenomenon?

That's the hint dropped in Matt Weiser's excellent examination of the numerous deaths this year in the Yosemite Valley recently in the Sacramento Bee. He suggests that visitors to the park are just too removed from nature in their minds to recognize the risks of nature when they encounter them in life. 

Visitorship is up — as an excellent graphic shows, reaching a record 700,000 for the month of July — but deaths are rising at an even faster rate. 

"In the past, you had to be a pretty hardy soul to get out to some of these areas — almost a Grizzly Adams or Lewis and Clark," said [James] Kozlowski, [a professor at George Mason U], "Now, with the technology we have, some couch potato can get out into an area where they probably shouldn't be." 

Weiser then finds facts to support the good professor's theory: Deaths in nature in California are growing at three times the rate of population in the state. He even finds a ranger who points out that it's possible to be fit on a machine in a gym, but still not know how to safely descend a rocky trail. 

It's impressive reporting. Though when it comes to impressive, it's tough to beat a picture of any of the three single biggest hazards in the park — Vernal Falls, the Emerald Pool, or the Mist Trail. 

Mist Trail

[pic of Mist Trail from Bernard Siao]

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Winter Sunset on the Merced River (Yosemite National Park)

They say pro nature photographers (including Black, who kindly posted this picture) flock like swallows to Yosemite in February, for the low sunsets and the colors at Horsetail Fall. 

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